Project documentation

I got the following questions from a friend who wants to understand agile practices prior to implementing them on his project. I will try to answer them based on my experience.

” What needs to be documented in agile ?”

The Agile principle is “Working software over comprehensive documentation”. Documentation can be an intermediate product towards delivering this working software. It can be created for reference or for articulating business rules and in case of distributed development, to communicate ideas.

Chris Matts puts this well – The real aim is to build the knowledge in the minds of the developers and business users rather than focus on creating a document that may well not be used.

Having said that, there are real requirements to produce documentation as an end product such as for legal compliance or for product patents. Sometimes documentation is required for future support activities, but there are other better ways to handle these requirements.

“How do stories get documented ?”

At Thoughtworks, we have developed a practice to determine project /programme requirements in facilitated workshop sessions. Stories are captured during those sessions, typically by the clients themselves, using the following format.

As a .. <user who requires this feature>
I would like .. <goal>
So that… < business justification

The stories captured in this fashion supported by process flows and scenarios are sufficient for estimating and prioritising and thus, for further planning.

During the development phase, the stories prioritised for development are further corroborated with acceptance criteria, a set of conditions that the story must fulfill to be considered complete.My colleague Dan has an excellent article describing the intent and the anatomy of a story in detail.

“Are the story documents kept after its been implemented ?”

XP practitioners derive a catharatic experience from tearing story cards after they have been implemented.

In practice, the story documents are largely captured electronically either on the WIKI or in Word/ Excel documents or as automated acceptance tests – so does not make sense destroying them. The supporting documents that you build around documenting your business rules, UI design or implementation logic are useful even beyond the implementation.

We have used FIT tests as living documentation which live beyond the development phase. During development, they are useful for specifying acceptance criteria in a testable form and beyond that, they are useful as a regression test suite.

“How are the stories organized ?”

I like organizing my stories on the WIKI as that gives you multiple advantages. WIKIs allow you to have a view which lists the entire scope of development by listing the stories, their status, their priorities etc. You can have individual page/placeholder for each story which you can flesh out as they get prioritised for development.You can have another view where you can reference the stories by iteration. Multiple views are useful for all the stakeholders in your project including your client, project manager and the development team.

We have also used Trac , JIRA and Sourceforge for organizing the stories. Based on Thoughtworks’ collective experience in project management, our product division would shortly be launching an integrated project management tool called Mingle , which I expect to start using on our projects.

“How are they kept for future references ?”

As for maintaining documents for future reference, it is better for the existing development team to summarize the whole project as it has been implemented in a seperate document. Future reference requirements usually stem from the need to support or enhance the existing application. So important decisions taken during the project such as key architectural decisions, business rules, workarounds and UI flows can be very useful context to a new person on the project.

Support artifacts also need to be created in the context of the audience and the intent. For example, a working prototype of the application was extremely useful as a training tool for the internal staff instead of a wordy user manual in a previous project I worked on.

“If a feature is changed in the future is the same story accessed again and modified?”

The simple answer is no. You should create a new story for the same. You could mark the original story to say it has been superseded by a new story. Stories are also planning units and there are implications on project velocity* calculations and scope management that need to be considered here.

If your documentation is a living documentation like FIT tests, you will need to change the original documentation for it to stay relevant.

I would be interested in getting more perspectives on the above questions myself. So if you have wisdom to share, drop some comments here.

* – Project Velocity is the throughput of the team in a fixed period of time measurable in a unit of business delivery (Thanks Dan)


Climbing out of poverty

If you are a Bombayite or a Mumbaikar ( a resident of Mumbai), you would know that the best place to get bargain leather goods is Dharavi. However, it is also one nauseating shopping experience because Dharavi also happens to be the biggest slum in Asia.

Dharavi has always been a hotbed of micro entrepreneurship, with business models straight out of Prahlad’s Bottom of the Pyramid. Guardian now reports that the output of the slum is a staggering £700 mn annually.

The most incredulous fact, something that most Mumbaikars would be surprised with, is that Dharavi actually contributes to keeping Mumbai clean and green. Here’s the full article along with audio and slideshows.

Also, here’s a Youtube video showing Dharavi from the skies

Seek value, not quantity

For my Quality Management course at the university, the professor used a restaurant’s business model to explain the concept of value stream mapping. According to him, value for the customer would come from reduction in the overall cycle time – From the time the order is placed to the time the customer gets the food on the table to the time the customer pays the bill and leaves. He argued that it was a win-win situation since the customer’s hunger is satisfied and the restaurant is able to maximise the potential of a limited resource i.e. seating area.

Now although it sounded logical, I did not completely agree with it simply because I have been in the customer’s shoes. The logic above would be true if hunger was my sole motivation. However, I have been to restaurants to have an evening out & spend some quality time with girlfriend/family/friends. I would have actually been annoyed at a rapid fire quick service because it would have given me lesser time to soak in the ambience, speak to people, sip my drinks and have a relaxing time. On an evening out, I would rather have the restaurant focus on catering to my needs rather than focus on getting me out of the door.

So how does the restaurant make money off me given that my longer stay at the table has reduced the total footfall ? There is another metric in the restaurant business called the ARPU – Average revenue per user. To balance the reduced footfall, restaurants maximise the average revenue earned per customer. This is achieved through consultative selling of higher margin products such as wines and desserts.

Now lets tie this back to the software development process. Stories, in the context of lean, often get treated as inventory and cycle time is defined as getting a story from definition to development. There is a focus on reduction of this cycle time because it maximises the number of stories that can be delivered. However, it would be foolish to believe that more stories delivered is the same as more value delivered.

Customers seeking to build custom software applications are often unclear about what they really need. They often go along paths which yield them wrong results. They often break their own model and come back to square one. Ultimately, they learn enough to know what they really need . It is these really valuable stories that finally get delivered. It may take them longer to get there and wasted effort may occur along the way, but the end result is far more satisfying and valuable. The more time and chance the customer has to discover what they need, the more valuable the end product is for them.

Its more important to focus on maximising business value delivered, not more stories.